Trouble Down Under
How do you select your wine? Do you look at labels? Don't be afraid to admit it-many people do it, just as many people select books based on the cover.
If so, then surely you've seen them on the shelves of your local grocery store or wine shop: those bottles with cute critters on the labels. There are penguins, cats, goats, sharks, turtles, bulls, and kangaroos-a veritable menagerie of animals whose very existence is to reach into some secret childhood reservoir and open the valves to your pockets. While no quantitative numbers exist, there must be hundreds if not thousands of these animal labels, and a good portion of them are from Australia.
This explains the decline in sales for wines from the land down under. According to wine writer Jancis Robinson, as recently as 2004 Australia overtook France (FRANCE!) as the principal supplier of wine to the United Kingdom (the UNITED freakin' KINGDOM!). In 2008, total exports of Australian wine fell for the first time, shrinking in the United Kingdom by 17.5% and in the United States by nearly 25%.
There are a number of reasons for this decline. For instance, Slate Magazine's Mike Steinberger noted that the troubles of the global economy hurt the Australian wine industry, which is extensively export-dependent. Case in point: the Australian dollar increased to a 25-year high against the US dollar about two years ago. Further, a heat wave and resultant wildfires damaged a number of vineyards, with some losing up to 70% of their crops.
But there is consensus that Australia's woes were not caused primarily by the vagaries of the economy or the weather. The problems now faced by the Australian wine industry were caused by two sets of deliberate choices. The first was the decision to flood the market with cheap, uninspired wines like Yellow Tail. The second was the decision among higher-end winemakers to embrace the "bigger is better" mentality.
When I was in college I went through a brief Yellow Tail phase. At $6.99 or so a bottle, this was affordable but still allowed me to turn up my nose at those of my friends who were quaffing Charles Shaw. Then one day near the end of my fifth year at Berkeley, I opened a bottle of Yellow Tail Merlot, poured some into a glass, and drank, only to discover that it was utterly terrible. Subsequent bottles corroborated this realization.
It appears that many people have had similar epiphanies. As Steinberger wrote, "The biggest problem is that Australia has made itself synonymous in the minds of many drinkers with cut-rate, generic wines." Thus, when people think about Australian wines they think of really cheap, nondescript wines whose most defining characteristic is a smiling mammal or reptile. Why buy these wines when they could buy higher-quality but similarly-priced offerings from Chile, Argentina, and Spain?
And for those consumers who were willing to shell out $20, $30, or more for high quality wines, what were they finding in Australia? Hugely alcoholic wines-predominantly Shiraz (the New World spelling of the French "Syrah")-that clocked in at 14%, 15%, 16% or even 17% ABV. Compare this to many other high-end wines-a bottle of premier cru Burgundy on my shelf is a sprightly 13%, and a bottle of California Cabernet is 13.9%. As a general rule, the higher its alcohol content the harder a wine is to drink, and the harder it is to pair and enjoy with food.
But it's not only that these wines were highly alcoholic. Rather, wines on the high end were converging into one style: the big, bold, super-rich, highly-alcoholic, overly-tannic, crazy-fruity or crazy chocolaty Australian Shiraz. What distinguished the Mollydookers from the Glaetzers?
Then again, many consumers were simply staying clear of Australian wines because of the perception that they were cheap or poorly made. It certainly did not help when those consumers who were willing to take a chance on a more expensive Australian bottle got their tastebuds destroyed.
So is there any good news for Australia on the horizon?
It's too early to tell whether sales are on the rebound, but it may be safe to assume that many Australian producers will be taking steps in the upcoming years to increase value and decrease alcohol content/intensity. Further, there have always been terrific examples of well-made, balanced Australian wines, just as there have always been wonderfully-balanced Californian Cabs, Chards, and Pinots.
One affordable and delicious example is the Charles Cimicky "Trumps" Grenache/Shiraz blend, which is 14.5% ABV (high, but not as high as many other Aussies) and strikes a nice balance between tannin and acid. Peter Lehmann's "The Mentor" is a Bordeaux-style blend which you can get for around $25, which is elegant and expressive.
Or, if you have the money (and are lucky enough to find it here in DC), you can buy the Penfolds "St. Henri" Shiraz for around $60. This is lean, reserved, and is-gasp!-completely unoaked. If you do buy it, please be sure to invite me to dinner.
Just as with book covers, it is unfair to judge wines by their labels. However, be sure at least to stay clear of anything from Australia recommended by an anthropomorphized animal.